‘But if media proves incorrigible, harsh measures may be required'

In a single speech to senior journalists and editors on Monday, newly-appointed chairman of the Press Council of India Markandey Katju has managed to both please and irk the media.

On the one hand, he announced that the PCI sub-committee's exhaustive report on paid news allegations had finally been posted on the website. While the PCI has only taken action after being ordered to by the Central Information Commission, several journalists hailed the move.

Justice Katju also asked the government to defer implementation of its new television channel guidelines, under which licence renewal can be denied if a channel violates the programme and advertisement code more than five times. His statement was welcomed by representatives of the broadcast news media.

However, he also warned that “if the media proves incorrigible, harsh measures may be required.” Such measures include imposing heavy fines on defaulters, stopping government advertisements for them and suspending their licence, he said.

Justice Katju said he would instead prefer to remove the “defects” in the media through discussion, consultation and persuasion, for which he intends to have regular, informal get-togethers, which would include the electronic media, although it does not come under the jurisdiction of the Press Council.

To start with, Justice Katju took on the coverage of his former colleague and Supreme Court Judge, Gyan Sudha Misra, who listed “two daughters to be married” under the liabilities column in her financial disclosure statement. This was an example that the media often seek to “create a sensation by twisting the correct facts,” according to Justice Katju.

Another “vicious practice” of the news media was paid news, which was a scandal in the 2009 elections, he said.

“Non-issues”

Justice Katju asked why the media focussed on “non-issues,” such as the pregnancy of a film actor, pop music, fashion parades, cricket and astrology, while sidelining “real issues” such as poverty, unemployment, and the lack of housing and medical care.

“In the Lakme India Fashion Week event, there were 512 accredited journalists covering the event in which models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves at a distance of an hour's flight from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally,” he said, accusing the media of behaving like Marie Antoinette, the French queen who is reported to have said that if the people had no bread, they should eat cake.

His discourse on the shortcomings of the media spurred sharp disagreements from several editors. “You are an expert on the law and the Constitution, but you have to educate yourself on the media,” said Mail Today editor Bharat Bhushan. “We are not schoolchildren to be harangued like this… Don't start off on the wrong foot.”

He pointed out that it was the media campaign on farmer suicides that forced the government to come out with a loan waiver policy, and argued that there was a space for film, fashion and sports coverage as readers were interested in these as well.

“You are painting the whole media with the same brush,” said NDTV India Managing Editor Pankaj Pachauri, deploring Justice Katju's confrontational tone.

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